Planning a European Vacation Without a Travel Agent

My husband and I didn’t even need to sit down and have a
formal conversation about where we would go on our honeymoon – we knew we were
going to Europe. He had learned German in high school and college and was still
conversational, while I had taken Italian in college and… well… got to have it
on my transcript.

With Italy and Germany automatically on the list, we decided
to toss in Austria due to its convenient location. While we had plenty of
research we needed to do, we had a general idea of what we wanted, and that
idea did not include tour groups or unnecessary time spent in places simply to
stick to an itinerary. The type of flexibility we were seeking and our desire
to stay on budget meant one thing:  We
weren’t going to be working with a travel agent.

How the heck do two people who have barely been out of the
country (I’d only gotten my passport a few months before we were set to leave)
going to plan a trip to another continent? Very slowly.

1. Give Yourself Plenty of Time and Do a LOT of

We had 6+ months to plan our trip. This
allowed us to work on our itinerary in our free time, rather than rushing and
skipping over details that may be important. Each weekend, we would add to the
things we wanted to do until we had a list long enough to fill our two weeks.
One of the first things we had to do was book our transportation so that we
knew when we would be in each country and for how long.

We began by booking our
flights to and from Europe so that we knew when we would arrive and when we
would have to leave. In our case, we landed in Munich and flew out of Rome. We
were spending more time in Germany and Italy than Austria, with about four days
in each. We then realized we could spend two days in Austria, with the rest of
our time spent travelling. During the entire planning process, we spent a LOT
of time on TripAdvisor. In order to book our transportation, we had to figure

  • How far each city was from the next
  • The most efficient way to travel (Train, flight,
  • How long each leg of travel would take
  • If it made sense to buy tickets ahead or pay
    when we got there

Once we nailed down our travel (we
purchased plane tickets ahead of time but opted to purchase train tickets as we
needed them, except for a train between countries) we needed to figure out our
hotel situation.

We originally planned on staying at
AirBnbs after having great experiences in the U.S. and being impressed with
price, but because this was our first time out of the country, we decided to
stick with hotels so that we would have a better chance of having access to the amenities we were used to. We attempted to stay as close to city center in each
city as we could, keeping budget in mind. We booked through so that our
10+ day trip would get us a free night’s stay for a later time. We opted to
only look at hotels with 4+ stars, and were only disappointed by one.

When booking hotels it is also
important to look at:

  • How close they are to train stops and public
  • If they have laundry facilities if you plan to
    pack light and re-wear clothes
  • Whether they have continental breakfast. While I
    recommend eating at local spots for a great breakfast, having a built-in
    breakfast is nice if you’re trying to save money
  • Extra fees. In Italy, we were charged an extra
    fee at each place we stayed. It was good to know that ahead of time and plan
    for it in the budget

With our travel and hotels booked and the skeleton of our trip coming together, it was time to start thinking
about the kind of activities we wanted to do.

2. Be a Pro List Maker

Step one of figuring out our days in Europe
was a simple list in Word. We broke the list down by countries, and then freely
listed sights we wanted to see, activities we wanted to do, and restaurants we
wanted to eat at, with notes as to why. We noted which things were MUST DOS
(about one thing in each city) and made notes about things such as:

  • Restaurant dress codes
  • Museum hours and days of operation
  • Admission prices
  • Travel hacks we found online to make the trip
  • How long wait lines and time spent in attractions

3. Translate That List Into a Map

The next step to planning our trip
was creating a custom map online to see where all of the restaurants and
attractions were in relation to one another. You can create a map with custom
plot points using Google Maps. We included everything on our list on the map. If there was anything that was far away
from everything else, we removed it from our list, knowing that we would be
pressed for time.

Next, we used the plot points to
figure out what we would do each day by grouping activities according to location. By
comparing wait times and times to complete activities, we got an idea of what
we would be able to accomplish each day, and removed attractions that weren’t
as important to us.

By the end of this process, we had
enough activities to fill each day, and not a single extra.

4. Build Your Itinerary

From our map, we moved to an Excel
document. I listed the country and the dates that we would be there, then broke
the day down into:

  • Breakfast
  • Pre-lunch activates
  • Lunch
  • Post-lunch activities
  • Dinner
  • Post-dinner activities

I put our days together using the
grouped activities from our map, making sure to leave some opens spots to

Finally, we had an itinerary to
work with that allowed us to be flexible and build a trip that was truly what we
wanted it to be!

I eventually moved our itinerary to
a Word doc to share with our parents, and included travel time to make the
itinerary more precise.

In the end, we got to check off
every important thing on our list. We ended up eating at a lot of restaurants
on the fly, skipping ones we’d listed for ourselves. We slept in one morning, making it impossible to do a day trip outside of Munich, and switched plans so that we could go the next day. We missed zero flights and
zero trains and had very few hiccups as we traveled from country to country
(have paper tickets printed. Your phone WILL die.)

Putting this trip together was a
long process with many steps, but in the end we had a honeymoon that most
people only get to dream of. While it will be a while before we have another
international adventure (hiking through Amalfi wearing a baby sounds awful), I
can’t wait to use this method again to plan our next big trip.

Comment below and let me know if
you’ve planned a huge trip without a travel agent, and don’t forget to give
your best travel tips!

Gratitude and high fives,



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